The historic flood of 2008, when the Cedar River crested June 13 at a record 31.12 feet, was the worst in Cedar Rapids’ recorded weather history. The epic flood marks its 10th anniversary this week.
Before 2008, the record flood had been in 1929, when the Cedar, swollen by the spring thaw of a heavy ice pack, crested at 20.01 feet on March 18.
In 1929, the Cedar River was covered with a thick layer of ice the morning of March 14. The river had risen about 6 inches overnight but shown little change since then.
In order to make sure the ice between the Chicago and North Western Railroad Bridge and the dam would break up as it went over the dam, Public Works Commissioner Louis Zika ordered workers to set eight charges of dynamite to loosen the ice.
Crowds gathered to watch the blasting, but nothing happened at first. With temperatures rising into the 60s, the ice started to move that afternoon.
An early indication of the devastation to come came on March 16 when La Porte City — 55 miles upstream from Cedar Rapids — reported the Cedar there was 9 feet above normal. It had risen a foot in five hours and was still rising. Floodwaters covered the Rock Island Railroad tracks between there and Vinton.
While the Cedar was rising at Sheftic’s boathouse near Ellis Park in Cedar Rapids, it had deceptively receded an inch. That would not last.
Zika left his sick bed early the morning of March 17 to direct flood control efforts. His crews worked through the day and night filling and placing 1,500 sandbags along First Street and Vernal Street NW. The water rose too quickly, and the sandbagging was abandoned in favor of trucking in sand to build dikes.
From midnight to 7 a.m. March 18, the river rose 14 inches.
When the G Avenue NW catch basin began to overflow, workers tried to stem the gushing water. That effort failed, and a torrent of water swept into northwest yards and cellars. The crews’ mission changed from flood control to rescue. Residents and police officers in boats helped evacuate people and find them housing and food.
The Red Cross headquarters in St. Louis offered to help, but Mayor J.F. Rall, who chaired the disaster relief effort, said the city would take care of itself.
The flood cut the city in half, leaving only the 16th Avenue Bridge above water for passage from one side of the city to the other — if one could even get to the bridge, given the flooded streets around it.
When Ellis Boulevard flooded, more people were recruited to build dikes to prevent several more square miles of residential neighborhoods from becoming inundated.
The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway moved 12 loaded coal cars onto the Fourth Avenue interurban bridge to serve as ballast.
Any available pump, both powered and hand-operated, was put into use in the downtown. Some businesses plugged their sewer drains to try and stop the floodwaters from getting into buildings that way.
On the west side, floodwaters covered an area from 16th Avenue SW to Bowling Street SW.
On the east side, the river came up 12th Avenue SE to Fourth Street SE. The fire station at 1111 S. Third St. ???? had 4 inches of water.
The stockyards at the Sinclair packing plant (later Farmstead) at the end of Third Street SE — south of what is now the NewBo area — were under 5 to 12 feet of water. Trains and trucks hauled out the pigs awaiting slaughter. The evacuated hog sheds were submerged under 5 feet of water.
Two reporters tried to drive a horse-drawn milk wagon onto the plant grounds, but when the water hit the horses’ bellies, the horses refused to continue.
The Sinclair icehouse collapsed, and the floodwaters carried the structure, with its ice, down the river.
Quaker was shut down early March 18, with 3 feet of water in the warehouse on B Avenue NE and in other parts of the plant.
Remarkably, electrical service in the city continued without interruption because the Iowa Railway and Light Corp. conscripted every employee, from the president to the errand boy, to save Eastern Iowa from darkness.
Five carloads of sand were bagged at the power station, at Sixth Street and D Avenue NE, and made into dikes, and when that was gone, coal was unloaded from two train cars and placed on top of the makeshift levees.
As the water kept rising, more pumps were commandeered — with nine electric pumps and four steam-powered pumps working constantly.
The workers knew that if the water overcame the plant’s equipment, lights would go out within a hundred-mile radius of Cedar Rapids for weeks.
Finally at 11 p.m. March 18, the water stopped rising. By midnight, the flooding river began to recede, falling at a rate of about an inch an hour.
Conservative estimates put losses at several hundred thousand dollars, the equivalent of about $2.9 million today. The total did not include the cost incurred by industries.
In the flood’s aftermath. the city began building earthen dikes along the river immediately. The city also began negotiating land for a public river drive and permanent levee on the west side from the F Avenue bridge to I Avenue NW.
In 1931, the city built a sewage pumping plant and closed the sewer outlets that drained into the river. The plant was tested — and survived — in the 1933 flood.
In 1938, the Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era public works program, approved a project to improve Cedar Rapids’ levees. The levees were built in 1935 by men enrolled in the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The levees below 16th Avenue on both sides of the river were raised.
More levee improvements were made in 1949 and 1952, with the Time Check levee on the west side bolstered with clay and riprap. They would, for the most part, protect the city during its three other major floods: April 4, 1933 (18.6-foot crest); March 28, 1961 (19.6 feet); and April 3, 1993 (19.3 feet).
And then came June 13, 2008 (31.12 feet) and Sept. 27, 2016 (21.97 feet), pushing the 1929 flood to the third highest crest.
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